In August, the government decided to submit to the Knesset for approval an amendment to the Defense Service Law, according to which the age of exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox young men would be lowered to 21.
This decision has, not surprisingly, reignited the debate about the discrimination inherent in granting such a blanket exemption. Critics of this decision view it as exacerbating the current situation: The previous Defense Service Law (which was struck down by the Supreme Court as discriminatory legislation) required those seeking exemption to remain in yeshiva until the age of 26, and only then enter the workforce; the new bill approved by the government will now allow them to seek employment at the age of 21.
Despite its flaws, we believe that the decision to lower the exemption age is the right one under the current circumstances, and that its benefits far outweigh any drawbacks.
First, the crux of the current problem of discrimination lies in the fact that an exemption from military service is given to ultra-Orthodox men and not to most other population groups. Thus, ultra-Orthodox young men have the choice of whether to serve in the IDF or not, a choice that is not available to their peers. Consequently, not only do ultra-Orthodox young men avoid the loss of personal liberty and autonomy that comes with military service, but – in many cases – avoid the risk to life and limb. For this reason, the ethical demand that the burden of military service should be shouldered equally by Israel’s Jewish citizens carries considerable weight.
However, leaving the exemption age at 26 (or at 24, as was suggested in an earlier version of the proposed bill) does not remedy the discriminatory state of affairs. Studying in yeshiva does not constitute a form of “alternative service” to conscription to the IDF – not in terms of personal freedom, personal risk, or contribution to society (at least as most Israeli citizens understand this concept). Hence, requiring ultra-Orthodox youth to study until the age of 26 in order to get an exemption does not “level the playing field” or decrease the current discriminatory situation.
Moreover, to a certain extent, leaving the exemption age high actually aggravates the inequality in sharing the burden: A variety of economic studies, including those conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, indicate that the late entry of ultra-Orthodox young men to the workforce – at a stage when many are already married and caring for several children – is likely to stand in the way of their acquiring the necessary training to succeed in the labor market. And so, the current high exemption age means that more needy ultra-Orthodox families will become a burden on the public purse, and that the relative share of ultra-Orthodox workers contributing to the economy will remain low. As a result, Israeli society will continue to wrestle with two problems: sharing the burden of military service, and sharing the economic burden. In this context, it is important to note that even at age 21, ultra-Orthodox young men are already at a disadvantage relative to their peers when it comes to integrating into civilian life, as their peers have studied “secular” subjects in school (including math and English), have usually completed their matriculation, and have acquired significant skills, life experience and a network of contacts during their military service.
Second, the bill for the new Defense Service Law which was passed by the government, provides a blueprint for the gradual integration of ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF, with conscription targets that rise annually up to a level at which the majority of each ultra-Orthodox cohort is drafted. Raising conscription targets, rather than maintaining a high exemption age, is the correct way to address the issue of unequal burden of service, alongside increasing compensation for soldiers during compulsory service and reducing the length of service. Even if lowering the exemption age has some impact on the motivation of ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the IDF (although according to research by the Israel Democracy Institute, the impact will be marginal), the conscription targets will remain in place. Meeting targets that rise each year will narrow inequality, while failing to meet them will lead, sooner or later, to revocation of the entire exemption arrangement.
Even if we accept the argument that lowering the exemption age exacerbates existing discrimination, we should still assess the proportionality of this harm. It should be remembered that basic rights (including the right to equality) are not absolute, and are sometimes subject to restrictions in the face of a pressing public interest. The Defense Service Law is intended to balance the desire to increase the numbers serving in the IDF against the need to better integrate the ultra-Orthodox public into the Israeli economy. The number of ultra-Orthodox young men in Israel is rapidly growing, and their successful integration into the Israeli economy will be critical for the next generation.
Lowering the exemption age will lead to the entry of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men to the workforce, enabling them to support themselves and their families in dignity. It will also promote their integration into Israeli society and will make a major contribution to the strength and resilience of the Israeli economy. This outcome is sufficiently meaningful to justify such a step, if taken, despite dealing something of a blow to the principle of equality.
It is clear to us that even if there is a (remote) possibility that lowering the exemption age will be detrimental to sharing the burden of military service, leaving it as it is will undoubtedly wreak considerable damage to the Israeli economy and will lead to a highly undesirable outcome – having large numbers of students in a yeshiva, many of whom do not want to be there, but do not want to leave and take the risk of being drafted, while the financial responsibility for supporting them is shouldered for years by the Israeli public.
At the end of the day, the issue of equality in sharing the burden of military service must be addressed by encouraging more young people to serve and reducing the number of those exempted. But we cannot right one wrong (inequality in sharing the burden of service) by committing another – forcing ultra-Orthodox young men to remain in a yeshiva for years on end, cutting back the earning potential of thousands of ultra-Orthodox families, and acting against the best interests of Israeli society as a whole.
Prof. Amichai Cohen is director of the National Security and Democracy Center at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer in the faculty of law at Ono Academic College.
Prof. Yuval Shany is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.